Theresa May, according to disgruntled former Chancellor and now editor of the Evening Standard George Osborne – is a ‘dead woman walking’. It is possible, by the time you read these words, she will have been deposed and Boris Johnson or Sajid Javid installed in her place.
On June 8, she lead the Conservative Party into the humiliation of a hung parliament and minority government, squandering David Cameron’s 2015 majority in an election she had no need to call.
The Tories are currently playing footsie with a Northern Irish sectarian outfit (the Democratic Unionist Party) while Labour is sitting on the sidelines lobbing rocks in their general direction.
This result is especially remarkable given the Conservative vote share increased by 5.5% (to 43.5%), while the Labour vote share increased by 9.5% (to 40.5%): the largest improvement in Labour vote share since Attlee’s landslide in 1945. Both major parties are now extraordinarily popular electorally but neither can govern – at least, not without a great deal of help.
To translate those figures into ‘Australian’: the ALP would kill for 40.5% of the primary vote, and the Liberals would kill for 43.5% of the primary vote.
Labour’s two main sources of new votes were younger people, who turned out in huge numbers, along with three fifths of former UKIP voters. The Tories gained a decent but not exceptional working-class vote, especially in the North, and made huge inroads in Scotland.
Given May’s Labour opponent was the socialist Jeremy Corbyn, a man hated by much of his own party as much as by any Conservative, it is worth asking the question: what happened? I mean, in terms of votes won, May beat Thatcher. Corbyn beat Blair.
The Conservative campaign was dreadful: robotic and stage-managed, insulting the UK electorate. Given voting is non–compulsory here, Britons could show their displeasure with it most easily by failing to appear: Tory Remainers, in particular, stayed home.
Crosby-Textor, of course, mucked up the Coalition campaign in 2016. And, as despairing British friends were driven mad by May’s endless focus on ‘strong and stable’ (immediately parodied as ‘weak and wobbly’, Brits being what they are), I introduced them to ‘jobs and growth’ and ‘innovative and agile’. And prayed that eyeballs wouldn’t become detached from eye-stalks, so dramatic was the rolling.
Lynton Crosby is increasingly looking like one of those past-his-best football managers who can’t repeat his previous success but insists on doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result.
Meanwhile, some Labour types are insisting the Tory campaign was so bad that, had a quasi-Marxist not led them – if they’d instead opted for a sensible centrist like Liz Kendall or Chuka Umunna – they’d have pissed it in.
This is wishful thinking. Blairism is dead. Labour improved its position because of Corbyn, and not in spite of him.
Part of the reason Corbyn did well is because he refused to give up speaking in complete sentences and was willing to explain his ideas. Precisely because he is an ideologue, he has been thinking and speaking about those ideas for decades, and talks about them very fluently when pressed.
Not only do 18–24 year olds not remember the Winter of Discontent – where Britain’s heavily unionised workforce left bodies unburied, rubbish uncollected, and regularly turned the lights off – they do not recall the IRA and have no memory of a Labour government other than that of Tony Blair. And he, of course, undid much of his appeal by invading Iraq.
They were also unmoved by various attempts to hang shit on Corbyn – both by the Israel lobby and, separately, by the Tories – over his fondness for Hamas and his mateyness with the anti-Israel, pro-Palestine wing of his party. I’m interested in politics and found it rather niche. Young voters likely thought they all had a weird obsession with hummus.
The other main source of Labour’s improved vote was around three fifths of former UKIP voters. Demographically, many of these voters are post-industrial working class folk who opposed immigration (and so voted Leave) because it drew policy attention and public resources to other parts of the country.
The Conservatives did make gains among working class voters and improved their vote significantly in a lot of Midlands and Northern industrial seats. Their problem was that they didn’t do it enough, and the UKIP vote had a habit of going back to Labour in seats where UKIP didn’t stand (supposedly to help pro-Brexit Tories).
This confirms what opinion surveys have shown for a long time: UKIP voters are significantly more left of centre on economics than the average. Consequently, in seat after seat up North and in the Midlands, while the Conservative vote went up, the Labour vote went up more.
The erstwhile ‘Kippers’ were attracted by Corbyn’s clear focus on workers’ rights and public spending, and annoyed because May never really offered them anything to make their great victory last year against the urban political class feel worthwhile.
However, Corbyn’s masterstroke was the very thing that most enraged his Blairite MPs and provoked them into trying to dump him last year: his response to Brexit. He respected the result and supported Brexit. At the same time, he said he wanted both a soft Brexit with tariff-free access to the single market and an end to free movement. This meant he neutralised the identity issue (which immigration is a proxy for) among a large number of working class voters in the North and allowed Leavers to vote according to their economic views.
At the same time, he presented himself as opposed to the Conservative view of Brexit and so got the Remain vote (largely Southern) onside as well. Quite an achievement, but made possible by the failure of the Tories to have a proper debate on the issue.
Left-wing populism, as much as right-wing populism, is a thing. Corbyn’s gains showed it’s possible to hold a mix of left and right populist ideas (being anti-immigration but pro public ownership and a big welfare state, for example).
May thus overestimated her support and overplayed her hand by calling the election at the time she did. British voters don’t like being treated as short-term instruments in the games of their higher-uppers.
However, the election result is significant for other reasons, and in today’s Weekend Australian, I set out why.
This story, like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, begins simply, with a house.
The house is something few young or young-ish Britons or Americans can afford, despite doing everything their wealthier elders told them to: studying hard, going to university, working hard, not doing drugs, delaying parenthood.
Their parents, by contrast, have houses. From time-to-time those houseless young and young-ish people are forced to call on their parents to stabilise their own financial position.
They do so because real incomes for U.K. residents 60 and over grew 11% between 2007 and 2014, while those 30 and under suffered a 7% loss. In the U.S., the share of young Americans earning more than their parents did by age 30 has plunged from 9 in 10 for those born in the 1940s to barely half for those born in the 1980s.
Deprived of a place in an almost-as-bonkers-as-Sydney housing market, the young have started voting for free stuff – particularly promises of free university tuition – by way of recompense.
Last week, homeowners voted Conservative by 53 to 32. Renters voted Labour by 51 to 31. British politics, if not in a nutshell, at least in a house – or the lack of one.
They have voted this way in two countries, in support of two candidates: Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, who campaigned for free tertiary education. If you break down both the 2016 Democratic Primary and the 2017 General Election by income, occupation, and constituency, you discover it was often young professionals who should be in their first home who supported both men.
As they say, read the whole thing.